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Diplomacy
Chinese president Xi Jinping on the phone screen and Volodymyr Zelensky the president of Ukraine

Beijing’s Kyiv outreach is about acquiring a global role for itself

by Harsh V. Pant

It aims to signal its diplomatic ascendance and challenge Washington as the big shaper of outcomes. Late last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping finally made that much hoped-for call to Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky and informed the world that his nation “always stood on the side of peace.” This was the first outreach by Beijing to Ukraine since  the latter’s invasion by Russia last February, and Zelensky was keen on this engagement, especially after Xi’s visit to Moscow in March. Ukraine views China as an important interlocutor that can engage with Russia and seems to have been encouraged by the “long and meaningful” phone call between the two leaders that in its view would “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.” Last week, Ukraine’s finance minister also suggested that Kyiv should use its bilateral relationship with China as leverage to bring an end to Russia’s full-scale invasion, though he refused to consider China as a friend. The Chinese President has been reported as saying that China, “as a responsible majority country,” would “neither watch the fire from the other side, nor add fuel to the fire, let alone take advantage of the crisis to profit.” But there was no suggestion that Beijing would be doing anything meaningful going forward. The call and associated choreography had more to do with positioning China as a global power that is willing to engage in resolving problems, as opposed to the US that is creating more trouble by continuing to support Ukraine and prolonging the war. China has already laid out its cards on the table when it comes to the Ukraine crisis. It had released a 12-point position paper on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis earlier this February. In an attempt to present itself as a neutral peace broker, Beijing has enunciated a few standard principles, including respect for the sovereignty of all countries, resumption of peace talks, keeping industrial and supply chains stable and opposition to unilateral sanctions  as well as the use of nuclear weapons. Taking this forward, China has decided to send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties in an attempt at peace-making. But beyond these principles, China’s credentials are hardly supportive of a larger role as a peace-maker, as it has long refused to view its ties with Ukraine and Russia at the same level. Russia has shown no inclination to step back from its aggression and Ukraine is seemingly preparing to launch a large-scale counter-offensive against Russian forces in a bid to retake territory in the east and south for which it has been preparing for months now. While Moscow has given no indication of backing down, perhaps assuming that it has time on its side and waiting for the Western consensus on backing Ukraine to collapse, Ukrainian forces feel that the weaponry delivered by the West over the past few months is likely to give them the momentum needed to shape battlefield realities in their favour. China is also unlikely to be viewed as an honest broker, given its ties with Russia that are increasingly becoming tighter. And despite repeated statements that the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all  countries must be effectively upheld,” Beijing has not only refused to acknowledge Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, but has continued to privilege its partnership with Moscow. Though Xi’s visit to Moscow in March did not result in any concrete help to Russia, it did signal to the West that  the China-Russia entente can shape the global balance of power in ways that can be deleterious to Western interests. More than anything else, Chinese posturing in the Ukraine conflict is aimed at the West. In its position paper, Beijing talks about the need to abandon a “Cold War mentality” and argues that “the legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly,” making it clear that it largely agrees with Moscow’s perspective that it was the West that created the conditions for this war with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). China has also been critical of Western sanctions on Russia, arguing that “relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries, so as to do their share in de-escalating the Ukraine crisis.” Both of these issues are germane for the long-term trajectory of China’s role on the global stage amid deepening tensions with the US. For China, clearly, this crisis is more about itself than it is about Russia. As China comes out of its covid- induced isolation, it would like to have a stable international environment for a sustained economic recovery. But it is also using an opportunity to emerge as a key global interlocutor by venturing into diplomatic arenas it has been shy of in the past, taking advantage of the West’s recent inward orientation. This effort was exemplified by its attempt to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in the highly volatile Middle East. China’s attempt at emerging as a global peace-maker is about presenting a diplomatic challenge to the US on the global stage. Beijing may not have much of an impact on the eventual outcome of the Ukraine crisis, but it is signalling that it is no longer shy of showcasing its growing diplomatic heft.

Diplomacy
Currencies of US, China, Russia

Can Russia and China unseat the Dollar from its throne?

by Sauradeep Bag

​Although the dollar continues to be the dominant global currency, Russia and China could dent this dominance. In the aftermath of global financial exclusion, Russia has had to make some strategic adaptations. The West’s sanctions had crippling consequences, and the Kremlin scrambled to find alternatives. In light of these developments, China became an important ally, and the Yuan—its currency—has taken on a more prominent role. It is telling that in Russia, the yuan has surpassed the United States Dollar (USD) in trading volume, a feat achieved a year after the Ukraine conflict, which triggered a series of sanctions against Moscow. As Russia and China band together, one wonders what other shifts will take place and how they will shape the future. Change is afoot, and the Russian market bears witness. The month of February saw a watershed moment as the yuan surged past the dollar in monthly trading volume for the first time. The momentum continued into March as the gap between the two currencies widened, showcasing the growing sway of the yuan. It’s an impressive feat, considering that the yuan’s trading volume on the Russian market was once quite insignificant. The winds of change blew through Russia’s financial system as the year progressed. Additional sanctions had taken their toll on the few remaining banks that still held power to make cross-border transactions in the currencies of countries that had been deemed “unfriendly” by the Kremlin. One such bank was Raiffeisen Bank International AG, whose Russian branch played a significant role in facilitating international payments within the country. However, the lender found itself under the watchful eye of both European and US authorities, which only added to the pressure. These events spurred the Kremlin and Russian companies to shift their foreign-trade transactions to currencies of countries that had not imposed sanctions.Converging coalitionsThe bond between Russia and China is growing stronger, with both nations seeking to bolster their positions on the global stage. Their alliance has spread across various spheres: military, economic, and political. With relations between Russia and the West crumbling, China has emerged as a key partner for Russia, providing it with the necessary support to counter economic and political pressure. On the other hand, China is keen on expanding its global reach, especially in the Eurasian region, and sees Russia as an important ally in this regard. President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow and his pledge to expand cooperation are likely to take this partnership to greater heights. Trade and investment ties are set to grow stronger, with both nations seeking to reduce their dependence on Western economies. Russia’s focus on infrastructure development and mega projects is also likely to benefit from China’s expertise in these areas. Energy is another significant area of collaboration, with Russia being a leading exporter of oil and gas and China being the world’s largest importer of these resources. Technology is also an essential domain, with both countries investing heavily in research and development to remain competitive in the global economy. While the alliance between Russia and China will likely have far-reaching geopolitical consequences, it is a complicated relationship with both nations pursuing their interests, even as they work towards common goals. As a result of Western sanctions, Russia has shifted its foreign trade transactions away from the dollar and euro to currencies of non-restricted countries. By doing so, the Kremlin and Russian companies hope to decrease their dependence on the Western financial system and explore new avenues for conducting their trade and economic activities. This shift in strategy reflects Russia’s determination to maintain its economic stability despite restrictions on its access to the global financial system. It also underlines the growing importance of alternative currencies in global trade as countries strive to minimise the impact of sanctions and safeguard their economic interests.Structural overhaulsThe Russian Finance Ministry was not immune to the winds of change either. Earlier this year, it made the switch from the dollar to the yuan for its market operations. It even went a step further by devising a new structure for the national wealth fund, earmarking 60 percent of its assets for the yuan. The Bank of Russia joined the chorus, urging its people and businesses to consider moving their assets to the rouble or other currencies considered “friendly.” This would help mitigate the risk of having their funds blocked or frozen. As the world undergoes a seismic geopolitical shift, it seems Russia is moving in tandem, searching for ways to secure its economic future. However, the dollar still reigns supreme in the Russian market. Even with all the changes taking place, it remains the most widely used currency, ceding its throne only occasionally to the yuan. This underscores the enduring dominance of the dollar, which has played a significant role in Russia’s financial landscape for years. However, as the world continues to evolve, one wonders how long it can hold on to its crown.

Diplomacy
President Xi Jinping with Vladimir Putin

Putin-Xi Summit Reinforces Anti-U.S. Partnership

by Thomas Graham

The meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow helped both give the impression of a united front, but underlying tensions were also discernible. What did the summit achieve for each side?With the pomp of a state visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shined a spotlight on their ­growing strategic alignment, which is aimed at upending the U.S.-led, rules-based international order in favor of a multipolar world. Long on symbolism, short on concrete substance, the summit nevertheless served both leaders’ purposes. Putin welcomed the demonstration that Russia was not, and could not be, isolated on the world stage, as it deepened relations with one of the world’s two superpowers. By showcasing burgeoning commercial ties and unveiling plans to expand them, Putin conveyed confidence that Russia can remain resilient in the face of harsh Western sanctions.      Meanwhile, Xi’s decision to make Moscow his first foreign visit of his third term as president underscored his strong commitment to Russia and to Putin personally. He used the summit to underscore China’s determination to pursue its national interests in defiance of mounting U.S. economic and diplomatic pressure—making the point that China will not abandon its strategic partner in pushing back against U.S. pretensions to global leadership. That was a crucial message for his increasingly nationalistic domestic audience, as well as for the Global South, where the U.S.-led liberal order is under stress. At the same time, Xi subtly let it be known that China is the dominant partner. Putin had little choice but to accept Xi’s proposal that Russia use the yuan, not the ruble, in trade with the Global South to diminish the role of the U.S. dollar in world trade. Xi also gratuitously endorsed Putin for reelection in 2024, even though the Russian president has not declared his intention to run. And at the joint press availability at the end of the summit, Xi was much more restrained in his description of bilateral relations than was Putin, who was eager to lay out all the areas in which the two countries would enhance cooperation in the years ahead. That left the clear impression that Russia needed China much more than China needed Russia.What does the summit mean for the war in Ukraine?Nothing at the summit suggested that the underlying dynamic in the war was about to change. As expected, Beijing continued to provide Moscow with strong diplomatic support, echoing the latter’s narrative blaming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the conflict. Despite Washington’s fears, however, Xi gave no indication that China was ready to provide lethal military aid that might radically improve Russia’s chances on the battlefield. Putin noted that China’s recently released 12-point peace plan could serve as a basis for negotiations, but neither he nor Xi suggested any practical steps that might give substance to what is largely a list of bromides about respecting sovereignty, avoiding escalation, and seeking a diplomatic solution. The reality is that China benefits from the military stalemate. Russia’s aggression distracts U.S. attention and resources from the Indo-Pacific region, while Western sanctions compel Russia to turn to China as an economic lifeline. China exploits Russia’s predicament to gain access to critical natural resources, especially oil and gas, at discounted prices.  In line with this calculus, Xi provided Putin with sufficient moral and material support so that he could continue the fight, but much less than needed to give Russia the advantage. At the same time, the Chinese continued to drive hard commercial bargains. Notably, no deal was announced to build a second Power of Siberia gas pipeline, which Putin has described as “the deal of the century.” Rather, it was simply noted that further details needed to be negotiated, as China explores alternatives.What does it reveal about the underlying tensions between China and Russia?Except for a brief period after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, China and Russia have been rivals, not partners. Until the end of the Cold War, Russia was by far the superior power.   The dynamic changed dramatically after 1991. Then, the two countries’ economies were roughly the same size. Now, China’s economy is ten times larger, and the gap continues to widen.  Moreover, China now casts a much larger shadow on the global stage: it has overtaken Russia in the development of advanced technology and its conventional military is comparable to Russia’s, even as it is moving toward nuclear parity with both Russia and the United States. What once could have been seen as a roughly equal partnership has evolved to the point where Russia is decidedly the junior partner. Despite the rhetoric of comprehensive partnership and avowals from Putin and Xi that relations have never been better, this asymmetry in power and ambition is in itself a source of friction, in addition to the civilizational clashes, racial prejudices, territorial grievances, and geopolitical competition that have strained relations in the past. But these sources of tension are currently far outweighed by the shared challenge from the United States. Washington’s current policy of dual containment only reinforces their strategic alignment and pushes the tensions further into the background.